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2nd Sunday of Epiphany

05 January 2024

14 January, 1 Samuel 3.1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18 (139.1-9); Revelation 5.1-10; John 1.43-end


I WOULD like to know more about Philip’s friend Nathanael, who was dragged along by his companion’s enthusiasm to meet a new rabbi. After all, John highlights that meeting, placing it just after the prologue to his Gospel. It is an emblematic encounter, pointing beyond itself. And Nathanael did go on to follow Jesus: he even saw him after the resurrection (John 21.2).

I am not alone in wanting to know more. Since at least the fourth century, people have argued that Nathanael was Cleopas’s unnamed companion on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13). This has no scriptural warrant. We should make do with what information John (who, alone of the Evangelists, mentions this name) provides.

Nathanael is the first example of a troubling theme in John’s Gospel: resistance to Jesus’s true identity. I say “troubling” because of the way in which Christians later detached Jesus — a Jew — from his proper context, and demonised ”the Jews” as his opponents. Nathanael initially looks like proof that “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1.11).

Christian anti-Semitism is too complex a phenomenon to be explored fully here. But the problem to which it is such an ungodly answer has been in plain sight since the beginning of Christianity: if the saving blood of Jesus seals God’s new covenant with all the peoples of the earth, what becomes of promises made under the old covenants, with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses?

Christians can agree that God cannot have been “wrong” when he singled out his ancient people, the Jews. But, if his promises under the old covenant are not annulled under the new covenant, Christians have somehow to incorporate those promises.

We have found plenty of ways to ignore the plain sense of scripture and focus on what fits our Christian world-view. To imagine what a Jewish person might make of our “new covenant”, we could reflect on how we might feel about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ claiming that their Book of Mormon is a divine revelation on a par with the Bible. “Definitely not kosher,” we would probably conclude.

Nathanael matters, because he is the first embodiment of the encounter between Jesus and people who think that they already know everything they need to about God. He speaks a judgement that he has probably learned in childhood; and yet he still goes with Philip. He does not let his preconceptions about people who come from Nazareth get in the way of seeing for himself, and making up his own mind. So, Jesus commends him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

One letter stands between me and the reading of this verse which I wish were accurate. If the word “truly” had been an adjective instead of an adverb (alethes instead of alethos), we could say of Nathanael, “Here is a true Israelite.” Then Jesus would be showing awareness of Nathanael’s secret inner attitude — which was not the racial entitlement that he absorbed from his environment and expressed with that snooty remark about Nazareth.

I am as prone as any other commentator to letting preconceptions govern my “take” on the text, or to being distracted, like those who digress on what Nathanael was up to under that tree. But still I wish I could get away with my reading, because being a “true Israelite”, like Nathanael, could then mean having an inner sense of God’s nature and benevolence, but needing encouragement to express that conviction openly.

Christians have made many mistakes over the centuries. Sometimes, people of other faiths (or none) have suffered for them. But, if we rejoice in our own faith as the fullest expression of God’s dispensation, we do not also need to be hostile to those who find God by other paths. In Matthew 26.64, when the high priest asks Jesus if he is the “son of God”, he answers, obliquely, that he is the “Son of Man”. Here, Nathanael exclaims that Jesus is the “King of Israel”, and, again, Jesus responds obliquely, affirming that he is the “Son of Man”.

This scripture directs us to fix our eyes and minds on Jesus’s human kinship with us. That is also the message of John’s First Epistle: “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3.2).

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